Editor's note: If you’re an end-client researcher and interested in participating in a Q&A with Quirk’s, please e-mail me at emilyk@quirks.com. 

What led you to a career in marketing research? 

Stephanie Heller: I have always been interested in learning about people and how they interact with their surroundings, so I chose sociology as my undergraduate major. While in college, I took a survey design and analysis class where I learned first-hand how to create a research project from start to finish that uncovers the opinions, attitudes and behaviors of people and how they influence the world around them. I knew I wanted to explore survey research further and while I was looking for internships there was an opening in the Consumer Insights department at Universal and I have been there ever since!

Jessica Golson: I went to school for advertising and planned to go the creative route until I took an advertising research class. We had been studying the general principles of effective advertising, but this was the first time we were introduced to the concept of nuance, thinking critically about how to appeal to distinct audiences with unique motivations. This class inspired me to seek a research internship and the more I learned, the more I loved it! I have been fortunate to work in the consumer insights field my entire career. 

Universal Parks & Resorts operates theme parks and resorts around the world. Do you have any tips for client-side researchers launching their first global research project? 

Golson: One of the most basic challenges is that respondents from different countries have different response patterns. For our global projects, we design surveys that are completely free of traditional scales. To equalize the data, we like to use discrete choice questions, ranks and force the same number of selected items with multiple response. If, for some reason, scales are unavoidable, we’ve also come up with a few heuristics for sharing the results with our stakeholders in a relative, rather than absolute, way. 

Heller: We always approach critical topics from various angles, understanding that the results of any one question on its own won’t reveal the truth – which is also our practice for domestic research. We look for, and interpret, patterns across a number of different questions to feel more confident that we won’t misrepresent something. We also scan the results from one country to the others and ask ourselves why the differences exist where they do. What is the nature of these differences? Is this another insight?

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your work and the research you are conducting? 

Golson: We were lucky to continue working while our parks were closed. Our team completed a comprehensive project on the topic of COVID-19, including a segmentation to identify and understand the types of consumers who are willing to return to theme parks and under what conditions, both external – what’s happening in the world – and internal – factors that theme park operators can actually control. This was a massive undertaking in terms of scope and number of stakeholders, and very time constrained, so it was the most collaborative project we’ve worked on to date.

Heller: While some of the research projects we work on measure the attitudes of our guests, other times we partner with our strategy team to determine the needs of our guests. With the pandemic being an unprecedented time without a predictable future, we really can only survey about a point in time which makes it a challenge to measure how the future will look. To help gauge how consumers are feeling, we’ve been studying tracking data from our own surveys and utilizing secondary research that measures the change in sentiment about the pandemic. Moving forward, we included our segmentation typing tool in our tracking and post-visit surveys to learn if there are shifts in the types of guests who are visiting our parks and how their needs are changing.

In our e-mail exchange, you mentioned your shared interest in Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. Tell me more! 

Heller: I always try to make a point in understanding the product I’m studying and when it comes to Halloween Horror Nights I am more than happy to experience the event in person! Walking through the house as a guest is a great experience itself, but walking through the houses like we do – with all the guest experience data in the backs of our minds – brings a whole new element to it. I walk through the houses with a critical eye, noticing all the things that are driving the scores up and down and, all the while, formulating a theory as to what makes a haunted house the best experience it can be for all types of guests

Golson: Our parks are completely transformed into a Halloween-lover’s dream. Ominous music and smoke waft through the streets, terrifying “scare-actors” chase after you and the sound stages become giant mazes that bring the best horror stories to life. Everything is so expansive, artistic and detailed – it’s truly a masterpiece! One of the first projects Stephanie and I both worked on when we were analysts was the guest satisfaction survey to evaluate how the event was performing each week. Plus, this topic always inspires interesting new research projects to answer questions like, “Which new intellectual properties should we partner with?” “Is there a formula to pick the right properties to make the most compelling event?” and “What does ‘scary’ even mean? How can we push the limits?”